EU ministers play hardball as they sign off negotiating plan

EU digs in for Brexit trade battle: European ministers play hardball over fishing and Elgin Marbles as they sign off negotiating plan – while Boris Johnson finalises tactics with Cabinet vowing the UK WILL ‘take back control’ by January 1

  • Boris Johnson is gathering Cabinet to sign off tactics for EU trade negotiations
  • European ministers assembling in Brussels to finalise mandate for Michel Barnier
  • Bloc taking tough line on issues such as fishing and level playing field provisions 

The EU and the UK are digging in for a bitter battle over post-Brexit trade today, with Boris Johnson vowing to ‘take back control’ by January 1.

European ministers are gathering in Brussels to sign off the bloc’s negotiating plan, dismissing the prospect of a Canada-style package, and playing hardball on issues such as fishing, level playing field provisions, and the Elgin Marbles. 

Meanwhile, the PM will assemble his Cabinet to finalise British tactics for the looming talks. The combative tone was set yesterday when Paris accused the UK of trying to ‘blackmail’ the EU into accepting a bad deal.

But Mr Johnson responded by again making clear that under no circumstances will he extend the ‘standstill’ transition period beyond the end of December – even if no agreement has been reached by that point.

Michel Barnier

Boris Johnson (left) is gathering his Cabinet to sign off Brexit trade deal plans – while Michel Barnier (right) will have his mandate finalised by European ministers in Brussels

A Whitehall source added: ‘We have to have taken back control by January 1. We are being very clear about that so that there is no misunderstanding.’ 

Brussels’ mandate for negotiator Michel Barnier is due to be formally unveiled this afternoon.

In Westminster, the Brexit inner Cabinet will discuss the UK’s stance after the weekly gathering of the full slate of ministers.

The final agreement is then due to be published online and presented in Parliament on Thursday.

Ministers are expected to commit to seeking a Canada-style agreement with zero tariffs, a proposal Boris Johnson and his Europe adviser David Frost have set out in speeches in recent weeks.

But the push for a Canada-style deal could set up a clash with the EU after Mr Barnier ruled out such an agreement.

Mr Barnier has previously said the UK is geographically too close to be permitted to compete with the other 27 member states on such terms.

The two sides are racing against the clock after Mr Johnson insisted the end of the transition period on December 31 is a hard deadline. 

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said yesterday: ‘The UK’s primary objective in the negotiations is to ensure that we restore our economic and political independence on January 1 2021.’

Mr Frost and his team will head to Brussels for the first round of negotiations on March 2.

One of the flash points will be fishing, with leading member states speaking regularly about wanting continued access to UK waters.

Mr Johnson used a speech in Greenwich earlier this month to announce, once free of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy, that ‘British fishing grounds are first and foremost for British boats’.

French minister for Europe Amelie de Montchalin (pictured) said yesterday that the EU would not bow to British 'blackmail' over trade terms

French minister for Europe Amelie de Montchalin (pictured) said yesterday that the EU would not bow to British ‘blackmail’ over trade terms

But French minister for Europe Amelie de Montchalin said yesterday: ‘The fishermen have the right to be protected, they know very well that if we sign a bad deal they will lose enormously.’ 

A leaked draft of the EU negotiation mandate last week also included a stipulation Britain should ‘return unlawfully removed cultural objects to their countries of origin’.

The passage is thought to refer to the Elgin Marbles, ancient Greek sculptures taken to Britain more than 200 years ago and now on display in the British Museum.

Greece has been vocal about demanding the marble sculptures, once situated in the ancient Greek Parthenon temple, are returned to Athens.

Downing Street has insisted the future of the marbles is ‘not up for discussion as part of our trade negotiations’.

The PM is expected to meet with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz in No 10 this afternoon as part of his diplomatic efforts with EU leaders before talks commence.

Yesterday Mr Johnson discussed the negotiations with Croatian counterpart Andrej Plenkovic, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union.

Downing Street said the PM highlighted the UK was ‘not seeking a special or bespoke agreement, but rather one like those the EU has already struck with other friendly countries like Canada’.

The No10 spokesman added: ‘He emphasised that the UK will not extend the transition period or accept any arrangements which subordinate us to EU rules.’